Is Jerusalem the “Holy City”?

by Cliff McManis

An All-Important Question
Is Jerusalem the holy city today? Before you hastily answer that question, consider two other related and vital questions: Was Jerusalem ever the holy city? And if it was once a holy city, but is no longer anymore, then when exactly did it become an unholy city?

These questions are vital for all Christians to be asking since we are the “people of the Book” and that Book is the Bible. And much of the Bible is about Israel, and the capital city, Jerusalem, is central to the story. Every Christian should have a position—a biblical position—on the status of the city of Jerusalem, and the nation of Israel.

Every Christian should have a position—a biblical position—on the status of the city of Jerusalem, and the nation of Israel.

Not long ago I attended a Bible Conference in Hawaii. The featured speaker was a long-time beloved Evangelical pastor and Bible teacher. The Christian audience was hanging on his every word for the two-day conference. That’s OK to “hang on” to someone’s word as long as the Bible-teacher is teaching the Bible accurately. But out of the blue he deviated off topic into a little rant, basically saying, “Today, Israel is nothing special. It is no different than any other nation today. God doesn’t love Israel more than any other nation.” “Ouch!” I thought to myself. I felt like I just got punched in the gut. How can a Christian Bible teacher say something like that so flippantly and dogmatically?

His point was an all-too-familiar one resonating throughout the Church. He believed that, yes, at one time Israel, and its capital city Jerusalem, was kind of special, like in the Old Testament, but then they blew it big-time by rejecting and killing their own Jewish Messiah, and so from the time Jesus got killed until now, and on into eternity, God does not think anything special of the nation of Israel…or of the city of Jerusalem. Israel is not today the “Holy Land” as so many people falsely say, and Jerusalem is definitely not the “holy city.” Actually, this guy would say that the Church has replaced Jerusalem so that all the promises God made in the Old Testament to revive Jerusalem are now all subsumed spiritually in the spiritual entity of the Church. For him, a future, restored literal city of Jerusalem on the earth is superfluous. God has replaced the historical city of Jerusalem with the “new” spiritual and eternal Jerusalem. So, his answer to the question above would be, “No, Jerusalem today is not the holy city!”   

But the Bible clearly says otherwise. Consider the following truths from Scripture regarding God’s special relationship with the nation of Israel and the city of Jerusalem and then assimilate these principles into your Christian worldview so that you can please God by thinking on “whatever things are true” (Phil 4:8).

What Does “Holy” Mean?
Answering the question, “Is Jerusalem the holy city?” is actually challenging because of the meaning of the word “holy.”  There is widespread confusion about that term. Need proof? Just think about how you might answer if someone asked you off the cuff, “Hey Christian. Are you holy?” Our answers would be all over the map. Some of you might answer, “No…I’m a sinner.” Others might answer, “Sometimes.” Others, “Well, I know I’m supposed to be…but it’s hard.” And some of you might actually say, “Yes, I’m holy; I’m a saint!” Those are radically different answers. And guess what? Technically, they are all correct if you are a Christian. Even though on the surface they conflict with one another, taken in context, each statement can be true of the child of God.

How can this be? you rightly ask. They can all be true of someone who knows Jesus because the word “holy” has different meanings based on the context. In fact, almost all words have more than one meaning based on the context. Look up just about any word in the dictionary and it will give you several meanings of the same word. Those variant meanings are based on the use of that word in different contexts. So, words can have different meanings based on the context. At the same time, a word cannot have more than one meaning in a given context. The meaning of a word is limited, fixed, and defined by its immediate context. To assign a word more than one meaning in a specific context is called equivocation. That is not allowed.

The basic root meaning of the word “holy” as used in the Bible is “to separate from; to be distinct; special; not ordinary; not like the rest.” In context it is applied in two main ways. It can refer to a positional standing or status of an individual, article or thing. Secondly it can also refer to practical progress or practice. So, in the New Testament the word “holy” is almost always in reference to someone’s one-time positional status or in reference to their ongoing practice.

Your position is what God thinks of you spiritually based on your relationship to Christ. You are either “in Christ” or separated from Christ. You are either in His family as child of God with all rights and privileges, or you are in Satan’s family and an enemy of God and Christ. You are either a believer who is born again with all sins forgiven and a possessor of eternal life or you are an unbeliever who is unregenerate, unforgiven and condemned by God the Judge. You are either a sinner or a saint; a saint or an ain’t. Your position before God depends on whether you have believed the gospel or not. When you believed the gospel, at that moment God “set you apart” unto Himself; He made you holy. And that never changes. 

Your practice has to do with how you are living in light of God’s commands moment by moment. At any given moment you are either being obedient, walking in the Spirit or you are being disobedient walking in the flesh. When you are in the act of sinful disobedience by an action, word or thought this refers to your “practice” that very moment. If you are in the act of lying about something, in that moment you are not being holy, but unholy. All Christians commit sin and so have times of acting unholy. But even when we commit unholy acts our position and status with Christ does not change. You are still in the family of God as a believer. He does not kick you out of His family every time you sin. Your practice before God depends on whether you are living in obedience or not. Every time you choose obedience over sin you are “separating yourself” apart from sin unto God in a practical way. Holy means “to separate” and that separation is either positional (your status) or practical (your current behavior).   

From the foregoing it is vitally important for Christians to understand the distinction between our positional holiness (which never changes nor can it be revoked) and our practical holiness (which has ups and downs since we battle daily with sin). Positional holiness is a one-time, irrevocable completed action God accomplished for us at salvation. Practical holiness is progressive, up and down, throughout our life here on earth as the indwelling Spirit helps us resist sin.

Peter uses the word “holy” in the positional sense when he referred to believing women of the Old Testament like Sarah, calling her a holy woman (1 Pet 3:5). Sarah was not perfect; far from it. But she was “set apart” by God as saved. Paul uses the word “holy” in the progressive, practical sense when he exhorts the Corinthian Christians, “let’s cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1). The New Testament word “saint” used by Paul so often to describe all Christians is actually from the word “holy.” As such, Paul was declaring that all Christians are positionally holy based on their belief in the gospel (cf. 1 Cor 1:1; 6:2; 16:1). If you are a Christian, then you are a “holy one,” a saint!

With a basic understanding of how the Bible uses the word “holy” in a two-fold manner, let’s now apply it to the Jews in general and Jerusalem specifically.

God Set Israel Apart to be His Special Nation
God appeared to Abraham around 2,000 BC and promised to make him into a nation (Gen 12). That nation was Israel, the Jewish people, which came from the loins of Abraham. God chose Israel to be His special nation, His prized possession, His beloved elect. He separated them from the nations of the earth for a special purpose. God told Israel, “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deut 7:6). In Amos God says to Israel, “You only have I chosen among the families of the earth” (3:2). God declared the nation of Israel positionally holy.  

God’s Promise to Israel was Everlasting
God called Israel His “elect” nation (Isa 45:4). God’s election, both corporate and individual, is for eternity, irrevocable (Rom 11:29). God told Abraham His covenant with him was “everlasting” (Gen 17:7, 8, 13, 19). His covenant was an “everlasting covenant for the sons of Israel” (Lev 24:8). His name is “the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!” (1 Chron 16:36). God made the New Covenant with Israel and promised an eternal commitment and love to the nation of Israel. God said as long as there is a sun and stars in the sky, He will never abandon His promises to Israel as His special, separated, holy people (Jer 31:31-37).

God Called the Promised Land “The Holy Land”
Psalm 78 recounts how God saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by inflicting the ten plagues on the pagan Egyptians and by bringing the Jews through the Red sea up to their new land that God promised them. Once known as Canaan, it would now be the land belonging forever to Israel and God called it “the holy land.” “So He brought them to His holy land, to this hill country which His right hand gained” (78:54). The land of Israel was called the holy land not because sinless people lived there, but because God set it apart, positionally, for a special purpose. God would consider the land of Israel “holy” whether the Jews obeyed Him or not. It turns out that they frequently disobeyed Him during their initial 800-year tenure in the land.   

God Set Jerusalem apart to be His Special Nation
Jerusalem is mentioned over 800 times in Scripture, by far the most prominent city mentioned. Melchizedek, priest of God hailed from Jerusalem (Gen 14). King David established it as the headquarters for worship of YHWH. God told Solomon to build the Temple there. Matthew calls Jerusalem the “holy city” where Jesus was tempted by Satan (4:5). Jesus died, rose and ascended from this city. God started the Church in Jerusalem. In 700 BC Isaiah called Jerusalem “the holy city” (48:2). God calls Jerusalem, “My city” (Isa 45:13). Scripture calls Jerusalem “the city of God” (Ps 48:1) and “the city of righteousness” (Isa 1:26). God calls Jerusalem His “holy” city not because its inhabitants were sinless, because they weren’t. Jerusalem was made holy positionally by God, having set it apart for a special purpose by which He would accomplish redemption and manifest His kingdom reign.

Jerusalem was never practically holy in terms of the people who occupied the city. The original Jebusites who lived there were wicked. The various Canaanites who occupied the city at times were immoral. Israel, God’s people, stained and spoiled the holy city with their centuries of defiance and rebellion toward their God. Yet God kept the city set apart for His purposes, to use for a holy purpose. It is significant that in 550 BC as an exiled Jew in Babylon, 500 miles away from his home, Jerusalem, Daniel prayed to God repenting of his sin and the sins of his nation. Daniel acknowledged that God banished the Jews to Babylon, out of the land of promise, due to disobedience. And yet while under God’s judgment, exiled from the land, after Israel rebelled against God, Daniel and God still call Jerusalem the “holy city” and God’s city, even, “Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain” (9:16). In response to Daniel’s prayer of repentance God sent Gabriel the angel to let Daniel know that God still considers Jerusalem “your holy city” (9:24).

God has set Jerusalem apart for a special purpose.

God has set Jerusalem apart for a special purpose. He promised Daniel that in spite of Israel’s disobedience God would send the Messiah to die for sin in Jerusalem (9:24, 26), which happened at Christ’s first coming, and God goes on to say that Jerusalem will be the center of redemptive activity at the end of the age at the time of the Tribulation and the destruction of antichrist, the false prince (9:26-27). Jerusalem is still set apart for God’s holy purposes.          

God Will Use His Holy City Jerusalem in Special Ways in the Future
God called Jerusalem His holy city and He still has much to accomplish in the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem. As the holy city, Jerusalem is not filled with sinless people; it is not practically holy. But it is positionally holy, set apart for a special purpose. True to His many promises God will bring the Jews back to the land of Israel (Lev 26:6-12; Isa 62), and Jerusalem in the future. God will allow the Jews to build a Temple in the future there. Jerusalem will be the focal point of the Great Tribulation and the Battle of Armageddon (Zech 14:2). The nation of Israel will soften, repent and return collectively to their God in Jerusalem. All Israel shall be saved (Rom 11:26). And best of all, Jesus will return at the Second Coming to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, with His saints, where He will rule as King of Kings and Lord of Lord over the earth. He will reign in glory for 1,000 years with Jerusalem as His headquarters (Zech 14; Ps 2; Acts 1:11; Rev 19-20).   

Jerusalem is Still God’s Holy City
Is Jerusalem the “holy city” today? Yes, in that God has set that city apart in a special way to accomplish His unique purposes for salvation, and much of that work is still future. Nowhere in Scripture does it say Jerusalem is no longer God’s holy city. If you believe that Jesus is literally returning bodily to the earth, then you have to agree that when He comes, He will land in Jerusalem, His special city. That alone makes Jerusalem the most holy, special, distinct, unique, set apart, privileged city of all, the destination of the most glorious event in history.

Christian, as you have opportunity read carefully through Romans 9-11 where God cautions Gentile Christians about being arrogant and condescending toward wayward Israel. Israel was the original root that we Gentiles have been grafted into by God to be recipients of His grace. Israel’s hardness is temporary and partial. Their fulfilled redemption is guaranteed to come. In the meantime, don’t scowl about unbelieving Jews and rebellious Israel. Instead, be like Paul and pray for the salvation of lost Jews (Rom 9:1-5; 10:1) and “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps 122:6).

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